From the gossip pages to the travel magazines, HVAR has long been the global media’s favourite Croatian island, a status it shows no sign of losing. As well as being the summertime haunt of celebrities, yacht-travellers and cocktail sippers of all descriptions, it also remains robustly popular with those who want a piece of the Mediterranean that is family-oriented, unspoiled and affordable. It is certainly well endowed with natural beauty: a slim, purple-grey slice of land punctured by jagged inlets and pebbly coves, with lavender plantations, vineyards and half-abandoned stone villages clinging to its steep central ridge.
The island’s capital, Hvar Town, is one of the Adriatic’s best-preserved historic towns, and also one of its most glamorous, with paparazzi roving the Riva to see who is transiting from which yacht to which club. The other main settlements offer complete contrasts, with Stari Grad – the main port – Jelsa and Vrboska boasting old stone houses and an unhurried, village feel. East of Jelsa, the island narrows to a long, thin mountainous strip of land that extends all the way to isolated Sućuraj, which is linked to Drvenik on the mainland by regular ferry.
Around 385 BC, the Greeks of Paros in Asia Minor established the colony of Pharos (present-day Stari Grad), developing a network of fields and enclosures on the island’s central plain that can still be seen today. After a period of Roman then Byzantine control, the island was settled by Croatian tribes some time in the eighth century. The new arrivals couldn’t pronounce the name Pharos, so the place became Hvar instead. The settlement nowadays known as Hvar Town began life as a haven for medieval pirates. The Venetians drove them out in 1240, and encouraged the citizens of Stari Grad to relocate to Hvar Town, which henceforth became the administative capital of the island.
As in most other Dalmatian towns, the nobles of Hvar established an oligarchical government from which commoners were excluded. In 1510 this provoked a revolt led by Matija Ivanić, a representative of the mercantile middle class. After first capturing Vrboska and Jelsa, Ivanić held the central part of the island for almost four years, raiding Hvar Town (and massacring sundry aristocrats) on two separate occasions. The Venetians ultimately re-established control, hanging rebel leaders from the masts of their galleys. Ivanić himself escaped, dying in exile in Rome.
Despite all this, sixteenth-century Hvar went on to become one of the key centres of the Croatian Renaissance, with poets like Hanibal Lucić and Petar Hektorović penning works which were to have a profound influence on future generations. This golden age was interrupted in 1571, when Ottoman corsair Uluz Ali sacked Hvar Town and reduced it to rubble. Rebuilt from scratch, the town soon reassumed its importance as a trading post. Later, the arrival of long-haul steamships becalmed Hvar Town, which drifted into quiet obscurity until the tourists arrived in the late nineteenth century – largely due to the efforts of the Hvar Hygienic Society, founded in 1868 by locals eager to promote the island as a health retreat. The first ever guidebook to the town, published in Vienna in 1903, promoted it as “Austria’s Madeira”, and it has been one of Dalmatia’s most stylish resorts ever since.